A case starting today that pits the Justice Department against New York civil rights lawyer Lynne Stewart is being closely watched by defense attorneys who fear the government aims to limit their freedom to fight for unpopular clients. Stewart is accused of providing assistance to her imprisoned client–radical Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. [includes rush transcript]
Last July, a US district court judge court dismissed charges brought against her saying they were unconstitutionally vague and revealed a "lack of prosecutorial standards."
But in November, Attorney General John Ashcroft personally announced a new superceding indictment brought against Stewart, accusing her of passing messages between her client Abdel Rahman, and an Egyptian terrorist organization. Rahman was convicted of conspiring to blow up several New York landmarks and to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He is serving a life sentence.
Stewart, who has denied the charges, is a familiar figure in New York courts, frequently representing low-income and minority clients. She joins us in our firehouse studio blocks away from the court house.
- * Lynne Stewart*, human rights attorney, arrested in April, 2002 on charges that she helped her client Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman deliver messages from his Minnesota prison cell to his followers in Egypt.
AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now!
LYNNE STEWART: Thanks, Amy. Happy to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: I bet you’re happier than going over there in a few minutes.
LYNNE STEWART: Exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about where the case stands now, jury selection?
LYNNE STEWART: Yes. This is really the first day of actual in-court with a jury. The jury was brought in 500-strong last week. They filled out a very long 20-page questionnaire. This was in part necessary because the judge granted to the government their request for an anonymous jury. Anonymous meaning when these 500 people showed up at Foley square they handed in their names and got a number in exchange. We believe clearly a message, dangerous, danger ahead. Listen to your government. However, they filled out 20-page questionnaires. We have reviewed the questionnaires and today, they will come in one at a time, and tell us a little something about themselves. The judge will question them, the lawyers will not. But they will be allowed to ask follow-up questions. This will proceed for a number of days, and we’re asking people to come on down and see this, give us their input. The input of the collective mind if you will, and help us in evaluate these jurors. I will say that the real opening day — this is sort of like spring training in a sense will be June 21. June 21, when the government and the lawyers, including my own marvelous Michael Tiger, will make opening statements outlining their cases for the jury that we’re beginning to select today.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a piece in, Newsday that talks about federal prosecutors in your case signaling they may take the unusual step of calling a number of news reporters as witnesses, a reporter in Egypt for Reuters news organization has been subpoenaed by the government in a list of potential witnesses in the case names others in New York media from Newsday, Patricia Ortada, Paovich Miller of New York times, Jean King of Reuters. The prosecutors contend that they want to look at the quotes of yours in these papers, a comment you made that Abdel Rahman was revoking a cease-fire emboldened extremists to carry out an attack in Luxor, Egypt, that killed a number of tourists.
LYNNE STEWART: I hate to say it, but that is completely erroneous. The statement that I gave to the press occurred in 2000. The attack in Luxor occurred in 1997. It had nothing to do with Luxor as a matter of fact. There has been no violence in Egypt since 1997. Even Ashcroft was forced to admit that my press release had no repercussion whatsoever. Unfortunately, the media does get it wrong sometimes. That doesn’t stop us, however, from supporting them. And we actually have filed on behalf of Joe Freed of The Times, who was also subpoenaed about an article he wrote about me ten years ago in which I said that I believed that violence in self-defense is justified, just as it is in the law. In other words, I support South Africa when they fought back against apartheid, and this they didn’t do it merely by non-violence but they did it by armed struggle. They want to introduce a snippet from that article that Joe wrote ten years ago about me. We have written to the judge saying they should be banned from doing this, unless they do the whole article, which also talks about me being a Mets fan, which also talks about my grandchildren, which also talks about my entire view, which is that an averagistic violence, which is violence which is not part of a greater struggle, and I am against that. We wrote a letter to the judge saying — this is Michael Tiger’s work, saying that they’re using tactics that haven’t been seen since Joe McCarthy. And here we are in the courtroom where the Rosenbergs were tried. Once again, they are trying the tactic of trying my points of view, not what I did, which is what the criminal law is all about. I also just want to say, Amy, you know, listening here this morning, you know, there’s one thing that comes between torture and that’s the lawyer. If there are lawyers, there’s no torture. We are the conscience there. We are the ones who interpose ourselves. It’s no mistake that my case takes place as well as the denial of lawyers for the Guantanamo, for Padilla, not for Moussaoui but Hamdi in Virginia. This is of a piece, and I think we have to see it that way.
AMY GOODMAN: We have been following your case, reported when Attorney General John Ashcroft first indicted you, came to New York, held a news conference, went on the David Letterman Show that night, and talked about going after you. What has happened in your own life? I mean, you have been free, as you await this trial. You’re a lawyer. Has John Ashcroft been effective in silencing you, and stopping your practice?
LYNNE STEWART: Well, I’m on one level, of course, think that the people that I represent. Sometimes a little shy of calling the lawyer who is in trouble with the government to defend them against the government. But on another level, of course, I have been free to travel all over the country telling people, of course, lawyers are notorious for being conservative in the sense that they don’t speak out, and especially people under indictment do not speak out, but from the very first, I felt this was such an important issue, really an issue of our lifetime, of my lifetime, at least, because a denial of counsel is the denial of our ability to fight back against the government. So, I have been speaking all over the country, making all sorts of hopefully in-roads against this truly outrageous attack on the way we lawyer, on the way we are able to give full service to our clients.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, this is certainly a case, which will continue to follow. Lynne Stewart, going to court today, and the next day that you will be in court will be at the end of June.
LYNNE STEWART: Right. June 21, for opening statements. The ante is back up again, 45 years; they’re trying to give me. People do not really understand those are the stakes here. I will be possibly in jail for the rest of my life, if convicted.
AMY GOODMAN: Lynne Stewart. You can go to our website to get contacts to other websites.